As freedom looms, what next for the Barefoot Bandit? He wants to be the Steve Jobs of aviation

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 August, 2016, 1:52pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 August, 2016, 9:02pm

After achieving modern-day outlaw status as the “Barefoot Bandit” - a baby-faced teenager whose two-year crime spree took him from Washington state to the Bahamas, stealing a half-dozen airplanes and robbing stores along the way - what do you do for an encore?

Last week, Colton Harris-Moore was approved for a supervised work-release program that should lead to his freedom from prison by early 2017. After a 6 1/2-year term, he has had plenty of time to consider his second act.

Now 25, he’s leaning toward becoming the Steve Jobs of aviation.

Hollywood studio foots US$1m restitution bill owed by ‘Barefoot Bandit’, subject of upcoming movie

“Nothing ever changes in aviation, and disrupting that will be good for the industry,” he said in a telephone interview from his prison outside of Seattle. “New ideas aren’t expressed or absorbed. I’m not satisfied with that. The industry can do better. That’s what I’m going to do, and I’m not going to stop.”

He would also rather just forget about the events leading up to July 11, 2010, the day he was finally captured shortly after holding a gun to his head on a powerboat grounded off Harbour Island in the Bahamas. That will be tough.

By that time, Harris-Moore had been inspiring songs and T-shirts (“Fly, Colton, Fly!” and “Barefoot Bandit for President!” were the most popular) and adoration from his 77,000 Facebook friends. At first, he found cover in the woods near his home on Camano Island and on Orcas Island, near Seattle, before setting off cross-country. Then, he stole cars, robbed stores and, when he could, flew off with unattended planes at airfields, usually crash-landing them.

He left behind his signature telltale bare footprints and notes that taunted his pursuers, including the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and scores of state and local police.

In prison, he spent much of his time reading, sometimes two books a day, according to his attorney, John Henry Browne, who described his client as intelligent and possibly autistic.

He has also had several visitors from blue-chip companies, he and his lawyer said, including a manager at Boeing who, along with his wife, has taken Harris-Moore under their wing in what Browne describes as a mentor relationship. Harris-Moore also claims he’s already had job offers from the aviation, finance and legal industries.

But first, it was Hollywood that called. After a stalled negotiation with Brad Pitt’s production company, Harris-Moore sold the rights to his life story to Twentieth Century Fox for US$1.3 million. However, the money will go directly to his victims for restitution; “I’d rather die than make a dime off of my misdeeds,” he said.

The movie, Taking Flight, is in development, with Robert Zemeckis directing and Oscar-winning Milk writer Dustin Lance Black penning the screenplay.

Harris-Moore has mixed feelings about it. He said he’s not proud of what he did and offers no excuses, except to say that he was a young, stupid and arrogant kid. A movie only will enshrine his story in perpetuity.

“I did this so everyone can move on,” Harris-Moore wrote on his website, which he launched with the help of friends. “But I think that if a movie is made it will be a mistake in the sense that, ultimately, no one will move on. It will go on forever.”

When Harris-Moore gets out, the first thing he says he’ll do is get his pilot’s license, even before he gets a car or driver’s license. He eventually wants to start his own aerospace company and design prototype aircraft.

Harris-Moore talked about Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, about building things that have never existed. He’s curious about the coupling of aviation and artificial intelligence, and he complains about airplanes that are clunky, bulky, loud, inefficient, slow and unsafe.

“They’re primitive,” he said. “Where is the artificial intelligence, hybrid engines and safety systems where nobody dies in a crash? You see people at NASA working on these game-changing projects, but maybe one-tenth of them make the market.”